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Legislative immunity debate gets House vote

  • Article by: Rachel E. Stassen-Berger
  • Star Tribune
  • April 10, 2014 - 10:04 PM

Late Wednesday night, the Minnesota House moved to rescind a long-standing provision that gives lawmakers some immunity from arrest during the legislative session.

The fabled “immunity card” given to legislators states that under Article 4, Section 10 of the Minnesota Constitution, lawmakers “in all cases except treason, felony and breach of the peace, shall be privileged from arrest” while the Legislature is in session.

But a group of political science students at Concordia University has made it their project to make it clear that such immunity does not extend to drunken driving. Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, sponsored the bill in the House.

The move triggered some ire among some legislators who have taken umbrage at the notion that any lawmaker would use immunity for such a reason. After suspending the rules late last night, legislators debated the measure before voting 115-13 in favor of stripping themselves of immunity from arrest.

There is no evidence that legislators have successfully evaded arrest for drunken driving using their immunity, but neither could researchers find a case of a Minnesota legislator who was arrested for drunken driving during sessions (although many have been arrested for drunken driving at other times).

The proposed change says that regarding legislative immunity, “a felony, gross misdemeanor or misdemeanor constitutes a breach of the peace for purposes of the Minnesota Constitution,” which effectively eliminates their immunity.

Backers say the move is needed to confirm for lawmakers and the public that legislators can be arrested on suspicion of drunken driving while they are in session.

A Minnesota Senate panel tabled a similar move.

“Legislators can and should be arrested if they drive drunk. This is current law, and it is rightly enforced by the authorities,” Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, said before the House action. “The proposed bill’s only value is to correct a misperception, largely created by its own advocates and recent media reports. That is not a sufficient justification for passing laws.”

rachel.stassen-berger@startribune.com Twitter: @rachelsb

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